Whether you’re a small business trying to gain marketshare and clientele, a freelancer fighting the good battle for your next creative gig, or a jobseeker putting yourself out there to snag that next job, one of the challenges remains: “How do I stand out from my competition?”
There’s a lot of competition out there in my industry as a small business and career consultant. The ones who seem to do the best and have a revolving door of clientele are those who have built a unique brand image that really resonates with who they are, the customers they cater to, and effectively communicates the value of what they have to offer. “Why would you want to work with me?” is the question that the best brands answer loudly and clearly in their messaging, and no doubt that message is positively received and then acted upon by their audience.
I also see a lot of people trying to be overly creative and cheeky, and simply approaching branding all wrong.
I see job seekers presenting professional copywriting portfolios chock full of work sprinkled with curse words in an attempt to be “edgy”. I see consultants projecting their website and marketing copy in the same tone and manner to which they probably speak to their friends after 2 or 3 cocktails, in an attempt to sound more “personable, and cheeky”. And just as bad are those whose personal and business brands lack any creativity or distinction at all. These are the small businesses who focus on pricing and features more than personal benefits, or the job seekers who treat their resume as little more than a chronological listing of events. That’s not a professional branding tool, that’s a TV Guide. And even that’s antiquated at this point.
So whether you’re a small business, an independent freelancer, or a jobseeker, allow me to share 4 steps you can, and should, take in your marketing approach to ensure that you not only stand out above the crowd, but making a positive and lasting impression.
Stand Out Above the Rest: Create a Killer Brand with a Big Voice
It’s not enough to simply create your “personal brand” – who you are, what you do, what you’re looking for, what your skills are, etc.. You can have a stellar brand that puts any and every professional in your field to shame, but it won’t do jack for you if the messaging behind that brand isn’t coming through in your communication. That goes for your resume, your website, your marketing materials, and anything else that has to do with marketing you or your business on a professional level.
Whenever I’ve worked with a client on their resume for instance, I wrap up our consultation with what I think is one of the most important questions they can answer: “What do you want prospective employers to know about you as a candidate?” And this is really where your brand takes shape. If someone attempts to answer this question with some hum-drum response along the lines of “I want them to know I’m a hard worker, I get things done…” I quickly reroute them back to an understanding of what creating a brand is all about: the unique qualities that differentiate you from others in your field with similar backgrounds or service offerings. Let’s try this again:
“What would you like prospective employers to know about you?”
“I’d like them to know that while my hands-on experience is on the production end, I’m constantly pulling from my experience as a fine artist, bringing creative ideas and concepts to the table, which helps me establish a great dynamic with any creative team I work with.”
“What would you like prospective customers to know about you?”
“Customer service and retention is of utmost importance to me. I value my customers above all else, and will always work with them to ensure that their shopping experience with me is positive and rewarding, and that they’re receiving value and quality every time.”
BAM! Sign me up to your newsletter, STAT!
Stand Out Above the Rest: Avoid Trying to Be Overly Creative
While constructing an avant grade resume chock full of flashy imagery, puns and oh yea, it’s written on post-it notes, might seem like a good way to get yourself noticed, it’s not necessarily a good way to get a job. “Creative” does not translate to “better”, and not everyone will appreciate your alternative approach, especially the HR folks who want to know in plain writing what you’ve done in your career to justify them passing your resume along to the head honcho for review.
Businesses have a little bit more flexibility when it comes to being creative with your branding, but it’s still important to keep the creative efforts in line with your brand’s image and personality. If you sell software solutions to Fortune 500s, don’t take your design cues from your favorite indie band’s branding. And when it comes to job searching or seeking out contract work, use your creativity sparingly and appropriately. No matter what industry you’re in, some of the standards of professional job searching still apply. If you’re going to create an interesting personal branding package to help you stand out from the crowd, balance out the essentials (resume, portfolio, cover letter) with pieces that your target audience will actually find relevant and interesting (a white paper you wrote, links to guest blogs you wrote on industry topics, press mentions, etc.). Try to learn as much as you can about the culture of the organization, and then appeal to that in your marketing approach.
Stand Out Above the Rest: Provide Value Above All Else
Let me attack this one from the small business angle first. As I mentioned, I see far too many consultants, coaches and other types trying to communicate to their target customers in an overly impersonal, cheeky and TMI type of way. While it IS important to demonstrate how your brand, whether it’s you as an individual or a 100-person company, understands and relates to your target customer on a personal level, you’re trying to gain clients, not friends. Give them insight into who you are without undermining your value and credibility. Prospective customers don’t care about what your dog did that day, the antics you and your friends were up to last weekend, or anything else that blurs the line between being personable yet credible, and just overly personal. Share information that your potential customers care about – how you’ve made a career transition yourself, what that was like for you, how you managed starting up a business alongside a full time job, how you struggled initially with pricing out your work without feeling guilty, what prompted you to start your shop. Those are the things your customers are really interested in, and while they’re far more business focused, they’re still completely relevant to them on a personal level, and they’ll appreciate working with someone who understands the experience of being in their shoes.
Providing value to your target audience is just as important as a job seeker. You have a product, service or skill that you are trying to market, and to a specific audience, be that human resources, the Creative Director or your next freelance client. Don’t hand Johnny Hiring Manager a resume full of one-line bullet points that lacks a summary statement, and just gives a static overview of past jobs that you’ve held. The way to bring value as a job seeker is by instilling confidence in your prospective employer that they’re going to receive a return on their investment of hiring you. This means it will be an easy transition bringing you on board, not having to hold your hand and essentially teach you how to do your job. It also means feeling confident that you truly value the role and the organization and won’t jump ship in 6 months for something that pays better, putting them back into candidate search mode. And it means clearly demonstrating to them where you’ve used your top skills to bring tangible results to other organizations in the past, so that they understand fully what you’re bringing to the table for them. “What’s in it for us by hiring you?” That’s what they want to know, and how you convey your value.
And don’t think for a second that underpricing yourself translates to value either, for exactly the same reasons you wouldn’t necessarily jump to invest in the cheapest laptop. Be the MacBook of the bunch, perhaps the more expensive option, but no secrets around what you’re capable of providing. Value is just as much about charging what you’re worth, as your’e being paid not just for the hours you work, but for the years of experience and expertise that you’re bringing to the table.
Stand Out Above the Rest: Knock ‘Em Over the Head With Great Customer Service
You would be surprised how many businesses have no systems in place for ensuring top-quality customer service. This includes everything from having standard procedures for dealing with customer dissatisfaction, providing refunds and guarantees, and even programs or perks for recognizing your top customers. I live in New York City, and while we put a high expectation out there on quality based on the cost of living and purchasing here, we surprisingly put less expectation around customer service. And it’s not because we’re rude (we are). But we’ve created an “every person for themselves” type of culture where we’ve slowly diminished the value of interpersonal relationships, put a stigma on small talk among strangers, and trained ourselves not to look one another in the eye, less we want to be considered an oddball with obviously bad intentions. And it’s not just New York City!
But that’s good news, because when we don’t expect great customer service and then we receive it, we’re positively surprised, and propelled to do business with that organization or merchant again. It creates a positive customer experience that we want to replicate. I go to plenty of places in Brooklyn that are far more expensive than some of the bigger chain stores or restaurants, but I continue to patronize them loyally because I appreciate their small business mentality, and the fact that I receive excellent customer service. I would rather pay more money to recreate that positive customer experience than risk giving my money to someone who doesn’t appreciate my patronage. Excellent customer service is key, it’s what my entire business foundation is built upon, one of the top reasons I’ve been successful in previous career paths like recruiting, and something you must pay attention to both as a business and an individual.
Same goes for job seekers- there is a very clear level of tact, or “customer service”, that you must adhere to as a job seeker. If you have a great interview and the person tells you to follow up with them early next week, don’t eagerly call or email the following morning, other than to send a thank you note. And always send a thank you note after an interview, or even a networking lunch or meeting. Letting someone know you appreciate their time and acknowledge the effort they put in to help you will prompt them to want to continue building a relationship with you.
Another tip to keep in mind is to adhere as closely as possible to the job description when submitting your resume and cover letter. Nothing irritates a recruiter or HR professional more than when a candidate submits an application denoting that they “have all the necessary qualifications for the job,” only to find out they have very few. Or even worse – they have many, but didn’t make much effort to tailor their resume over cover letter to the job. Always reference the job title to which you’re applying (companies have multiple openings), and introduce yourself with a brief highlights of your background that compel your reader to want to continue on and read your resume. Never submit a blank email with an attachment, or a one-line introduction that simply states that you’re applying for their opening. Newsflash: they already know that!
I love talking about the idea of personal branding because the most important principles are the same whether you’re an individual job seeker, an independent contractor or freelancer, or a budding small business. Your brand is essentially your product in a way, the entity that you’re marketing to your target audience, whether that’s prospective employers, buyers, or clients. Remember that it’s about communicating what makes you unique in your craft, what differentiates you from others in your same field or area of expertise who have similar backgrounds, comparable pricing, or identical products and services. Think about what your brand represents to your target market, how you can communicate that most effectively, whether the information you put out there is providing real value to your audience, and finally, how to do it tactfully and respectfully so that they’re not only pleasantly surprised, but curious about the experience they’ll have working with you.
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